The Bluest Eye

Steppenwolf Theatre Company

Lavender Lizards and Lilac Landmines: Layla’s Dream

Congo Square Theatre Company

at the Duncan YMCA Chernin Center for the Arts

A month once known primarily for cheap chocolates and the behavior of Punxsutawney Phil has become a bonanza for African-American artists, as theaters large and small showcase works in honor of Black History Month. February is also chockablock with female genitalia, as many colleges and community centers celebrate “V-Day” with fund-raising productions of Eve Ensler’s gynophilic performance piece The Vagina Monologues. Ensler’s motives are unassailable and the causes supported by V-Day admirable. But it occurred to me once again while watching Ntozake Shange’s Lavender Lizards & Lilac Landmines: Layla’s Dream and Lydia Diamond’s new adaptation of Toni Morrison’s first novel, The Bluest Eye, that despite Ensler’s worldwide fame, she never examines the complexities of female identity and self-worth, naively reducing these issues to the most common anatomical denominator. Women are not all alike under the skin, particularly when skin color still makes a huge difference in how the world defines and treats a woman.

The central character in Morrison’s tragic, poetic 1970 novel, Pecola Breedlove, is an 11-year-old black girl living in Lorain, Ohio (Morrison’s hometown), in 1941. Pecola desperately wants blue eyes–as blue as Shirley Temple’s, as blue as Jane’s in her Dick and Jane primer. She believes that blue eyes will make her beautiful and loved–perhaps even as loved as the little white girl her emotionally stunted mother, a domestic worker, cares for during the day (a child represented by a large white baby doll in this production). We know from the outset the tragedy that’s befallen Pecola: she’s pregnant with her father’s child.

Diamond’s sharp, wrenching, deeply humane adaptation, being presented by Steppenwolf’s Arts Exchange program for young audiences, helps us discover how an innocent like Pecola can be undone so thoroughly by a racist world that, if it sees her at all, does so only long enough to kick the pins out from under her. Diamond even addresses the lack that Morrison herself found in the novel. In the afterword to a 1994 edition, she says the book doesn’t effectively handle “the silence at its center: the void that is Pecola’s ‘unbeing.'” Making up for that silence, Diamond creates new monologues for the child that make clear just how desperate she is for a warm and kind touch. As in the book, Pecola’s quest for blue eyes takes her to the local spiritualist and snake oil salesman, himself desperate to get rid of his landlady’s mangy cur. He tells Pecola that for her desires to be met, she needs to feed the dog a piece of meat that, unbeknownst to her, is poisoned. Diamond has crafted an interlude in which this unloved girl mourns the death of a creature that treated her with pure affection instead of as an ugly, disposable outcast. At the same time Diamond, like Morrison, largely avoids cheap sentimentality and keeps intact the novel’s rich humor, much of it rooted in children’s attempts to decipher adults’ confusing coded language.

Diamond also retains Morrison’s multiple narrators, most effectively in the characters of sisters Claudia and Frieda, who befriend Pecola despite their discomfort with her awkwardness. (In one short but telling scene, they invite her to jump rope–an activity with which Pecola is painfully unfamiliar.) These sassy, self-confident sisters, played winningly by Libya V. Pugh and Monifa M. Days, stand in sharp contrast to Alana Arenas’s benumbed, hunched, perpetually guarded Pecola. And the interplay between the three nails the unspoken tensions of girls on the cusp of womanhood.

Neither Morrison nor Diamond allows easy vilification–even Pecola’s drunken father, Cholly, is a figure of pity. In one horrifying scene, his first awkward attempts at lovemaking as a teenager are turned into an ugly rape-by-proxy when he and the girl are found by two white men, who taunt Cholly to “get on with it, and make it good.” Morrison doesn’t excuse what Cholly does to Pecola, but seeing this early incident unfold gives us insight into how Cholly’s sexual appetites have been twisted by hate and impotence.

Diamond’s The Bluest Eye is geared primarily to teen audiences, but Hallie Gordon’s taut staging and superb ensemble make this play suitable for any main-stage schedule any month of the year. It deserves a life after its short Steppenwolf run.

The Bluest Eye

When: Through 2/27: Sat-Sun 11 AM

Where: Steppenwolf Theatre Company, downstairs theater, 1650 N. Halsted

Price: $10

Info: 312-335-1650 (TTY 312-335-3830)

Shange’s poetic new play, being given its world premiere by Congo Square Theatre Company, is a sort of midlife sequel to her “choreopoem” For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide/When the Rainbow Is Enuf, a seminal work that premiered on Broadway in 1976. Where the earlier piece primarily concerned young black girls coming to terms with womanhood, Lavender Lizards & Lilac Landmines: Layla’s Dream introduces us to a respected poet coming out of a failed and abusive relationship, seeking refuge in booze and losing her confidence. In the play a series of multicultural spirit guides and a trio of old grade-school friends help her reclaim her voice and rediscover her capacity for joy. The focus here isn’t so much race and its effects on a black woman’s identity as it is the influence of personal circumstances on an artist’s psyche.

Directed with graceful precision by Chuck Smith, the show works best when it confronts women’s efforts to succeed on male terms. Layla (also played by Monifa Days, who probably qualifies as the hardest-working actor in Chicago this month) eventually realizes that her coke-snorting lover, Yves, adores her for writing poems about him and other male artists. But he can’t stand it when she writes about women’s issues. Layla’s early pride at hearing that “hanging out with me was just like hanging out with a man” will resonate with any woman who’s ever felt falsely reassured that her ability to deal in the world of men’s interests makes her superior to other women. As in The Bluest Eye, however, the danger of painting black men as the oppressors is undercut with a scene alluding to extreme cruelty: in a jarring segment, Yves almost gleefully recounts the gruesome ways in which Jeffrey Dahmer slaughtered his victims, very few of whom were white.

This production includes many beautiful moments, and Smith and set designers Jackie and Rick Penrod have made excellent use of the proscenium stage, framing it with tall lighted columns representing stacks of books and with filmy pieces of fabric, from which the guides emerge as Layla’s dreams and memories unfold. But there’s a frustrating lack of specificity to the poet’s voice–both Shange’s and that of her onstage surrogate. We see the passion connecting Layla with the narcissistic, cruel Yves (the imposing Derrick Cole Wesby) in Lisa Johnson-Willingham’s steamy dance interludes. And we can sense Layla’s longing to be free of that unhealthy passion in well-played humorous exchanges between the graceful, magnetic Days and the actors portraying her saucy friends.

But the play’s individual poems don’t flow together with the same ease and confidence as they do in For Colored Girls. Layla may or may not be an extension of Shange, but we don’t get enough detail about her life beyond her relationship with Yves to decide what has formed her. And though we’re told that her childhood friends are critical to her identity, Layla’s Dream, unlike Morrison’s novel and its adaptation, doesn’t convey how childhood impressions carry over into adulthood. Shange is a far more gifted writer than Eve Ensler, but she too opts for rosy “respect yourself” resolutions that give short shrift to the actual struggle involved in finding a voice of your own.

Lavender Lizards & Lilac Landmines: Layla’s Dreams

When: Through 3/6: Thu-Sat 8 PM, Sun 2 PM

Where: Duncan YMCA Chernin Center for the Arts, 1001 W. Roosevelt

Price: $25

Info: 312-421-7800

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Michael Brosilow.